Building Walls of Hope: The Teachings of Claudia Bernardi

The Walls of Hope project in progress in Monthey, Switzerland

Claudia Bernardi (today a professor in CCA's Community Arts Program, but who also teaches in a wide range of disciplines, including Diversity Studies, Fine Arts, and Visual and Critical Studies programs) was a student at the university of art in Buenos Aires in 1976, the year the military dictatorship took power in Argentina.

"Those were very dark years -- very tragic, painful, and violent. The ones who survived learned to look at life, history, and art quite differently."

Later, in 1992, Bernardi accompanied the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team in the investigation of a 1981 massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador. The team found remains of 143 people, 136 of whom were children under the age of 12. Ballistic evidence proved that at least 27 shooters had been operating at the same time.

Bernardi's role was to create archaeological maps documenting the finding of human remains, associated objects, and ballistic evidence.

These experiences and others have profoundly affected her perspective on the role of art in politics. "I am hugely interested in seeing how art can support other fields to foster enduring peace."

She is also a cofounder of the School of Art and Open Studio, also known as Walls of Hope, in the city of Perquin, El Salvador. The organization is dedicated to arts education, human rights, and diplomacy.

Art and Activism . . . and Occupy

Out of Bernardi's 10 years of teaching, spring 2012 stands out as a particularly inspiring semester. She was teaching a Diversity Studies course titled Art and Activism. "It was hardly a class, but rather a gathering of brains and souls." She and her students explored the intersection of art and social activism in Latin America, more than 6,000 miles away . . . and then activism came knocking on their front doors in the form of Occupy Oakland.

It turned out to be an amazing, unintentional teaching aid. "While the students didn't all necessarily embrace the Occupy movement, they gained a palpable experience of what a movement of that nature might mean." They pored over every assigned reading, talked to their families and friends about the topic, and were sometimes even moved to tears.

Bernardi believes that the course's success hinged on the marriage of the rational process of learning and the emotional process of embracing the material presented. "If half of them end up doing even half of what they think they can, the world will better," she lauds.

The School of Art and Open Studio

Walls of Hope was founded in the city of Perquin in 2005, 13 years after the end of a brutal civil war in El Salvador. And still today, Bernardi reports, Perquin's population is divided: There are many people whose family members perished as result of massacres and human rights violations, and there are others who still support the army and the government that ruled during the war.

Walls of Hope brings together children and adults from both sides of the fractured community. Its inclusive, nonsectarian agenda -- teaching art as a means of reconciliation, diplomacy, self-expression, and community building -- has taken hold. "I have been told by the right and the left that what the school has managed to create, politics never could."

The Perquin Model in Northern Ireland

Bernardi has been invited to places as diverse as Colombia, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Canada, Switzerland, and various locales in the United States to implement "the Perquin Model" in other communities that have confronted tragedies and divisiveness.

In 2011 she traveled to the Ardoyne district of Belfast, Northern Ireland, to work on a collaborative mural project with children at Holy Cross Catholic primary school and Wheatfield Protestant primary school.

Though the two institutions are neighbors and both school principals welcomed the mural project, the children's parents were unhappy with the proposal, especially since local violence had escalated in July.

So, Bernardi conceptualized the creation of a mural with two homes. They started it at Holy Cross as an outdoor project and continued it across the street, indoors, at Wheatfield. Both groups of children worked with a total understanding of what the other group was saying and representing -- that they were working on the "same" artwork.

People in the community told Bernardi she should be wary. "You will get shot," they said. "In Belfast, we'd build a tunnel before a bridge." But the prejudices of the adults were eventually overcome by the children's excitement over working in collaboration with their unseen peers, and the realization that their Protestant and Catholic kids were expressing similar ideas.

The final "Mural of Voices" documented the children's testimonies, thoughts, and dreams. Bernardi reports that the community did not experience any major healing as a result of the project, but that at least new questions -- what she calls apertures -- opened up, along with the possibility of imagining similar efforts in the future.

Walls of Hope in Switzerland

In 2012, the celebration of the international Day of Diversity in conjunction with Amnesty International brought Bernardi and three other artist-teachers from Perquin to the Swiss town of Monthey to lead another Walls of Hope project.

This small town in the Rhone valley has a population of 34 percent foreigners, many of whom are asylum seekers and refugees. Bernardi explains that Swiss laws regarding people with undocumented status are not benevolent. Though deportation is infrequent, they live in a continuous, fraught state of limbo.

She worked with 93 men, women, and children from 23 different countries. There was no single common language, but communication was achieved nonetheless. The project offered the diverse immigrants of Monthey a space to express their varied identities and hopes in a public forum in a place where they are stateless, and, by extension, usually voiceless. The success of their efforts depended on their willingness to share their personal stories, many of which were tragic.

The locals initially expressed shock at the brilliant colors -- the Swiss color palette tends toward muted tones -- but they eventually came to love the mural's optimistic imagery and youthful brashness, and even began asking when another mural project would take place and how they could participate.

"Art is more effective than politics," affirms Bernardi.

From El Salvador to CCA and numerous points in between, Claudia Bernardi's art and teaching practices emerge from a firm commitment to peace and an unwavering belief in the goodness of students.

"The greatest moment as a teacher is when something clicks for a student. You can tell, even in their body language. They embrace the challenges and the questions. I have so much hope for the world when I see it happen. I have seen very terrible evidence of what people can do to one another. To see people willing to make a contribution with their art is so beautifully hopeful."